The Moravian Church, as it is known in North America, began in eastern Bohemia 550 years ago as the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren), which in turn had its origins in the reform movement sparked by John Huss (d. 1415). Professor Craig Atwood of the Wake Forest University Divinity School explains that the Brethren "hoped to recreate the original church of the apostles, which they believed was a non-hierarchical community of faith that was ruled by love rather than fear. By the time Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, the Unitas Fratrum had thousands of members and a rich tradition."
The Czech reform movement inspired by Huss split into two factions after his death: the more conservative Utraquist movement which became the national church of Bohemia, and the radical Taborites, who went to war with a Utraquist-Catholic coalition in 1437.
Atwood describes how the Unitas Fratrum emerged in this setting:
The original Unitas Fratrum included many former Taborites and adopted much of the doctrine of Tabor, but not the apocalyptic violence of Tabor. The Brethren were strongly influenced by the Waldenses, especially the idea of the “Constantinian Fall” of the church. Persecution had kept the Waldensians from developing a church structure and separate priesthood, but the Hussite Reformation provided room for the Unitas Fratrum to develop into a church. In 1467 the Brethren made a decisive and permanent break with the Catholic Church by ordaining their own priests and establishing their own succession of bishops. In the 16th century, bishops of the Unity engaged in fruitful dialog with reformers 16th century, bishops of the Unity engaged in fruitful dialog with reformers in Germany and Switzerland.
The biggest influence on the early Unity was the Czech writer Peter Chelčický, who was the most persistent critic of feudalism in the Middle Ages. Chelčický argued that Christians are bound by the Law of Christ as revealed in the Sermon on the Mount. Gregory’s followers often called themselves “Brethren of the Law of Christ.” Chelčický may also be considered the first pacifist theologian of Western Christianity, and the Unitas Fratrum adopted Chelčický’s peace witness. Initially the Brethren would not even serve on juries for fear of sanctioning torture and execution.
The Brethren became active participants in the Reformation of the 16th century, establishing productive relationships with Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin....
Visit the website of the Moravian Church in North America to read Professor Atwood article, "The Oldest Protestant Church Celebrates its 550th Anniversary."